The second-largest city in Maine, home to thousands of African newcomers, has elected a Somali American to its city council.
Safiya Khalid, 23, soundly defeated a fellow Democrat on Tuesday for a seat on the Lewiston City Council in a campaign that was marred in the final days by nasty attacks and threats fueled by social media.
Shrugging off the attacks, Khalid declared that her victory is proof that “community organizers beat internet trolls.”
The attacks didn’t seem to faze voters. Khalid won with nearly 70% of the vote to make history in Maine’s second-largest city.
Lewiston voter Amber St. Onge said Mainers don’t like outsiders meddling in their affairs, so the out-of-state social media trolling could’ve backfired.
“Honestly, it’s just like a vocal minority that’s like that,” she said. “Most people are really welcoming in Lewiston.”
Maine is the nation’s whitest state, but it is home to a growing population of Africans who’ve fled their homeland.
On Election Day, first- and second-generation candidates from four African countries — Somalia, Congo, Ghana and Nigeria — won seats on city councils and school committees across the state, continuing an established trend, said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.
“There’s been a push for us to have bigger representation in office in the towns. That’s where the decisions are made. If we’re not in those offices, then someone is going to make the decisions for us,” she said.
In Lewiston, the campaign turned ugly with online attacks featuring a photo of Khalid flipping off the camera when she was a high school freshman and references to her opponent being taunted during Democratic infighting.
She said she was being silly in the photo, which was taken by a friend. “I was a child,” she said. “I was 15. I didn’t know any better.”
The hateful messages that poured in from across the country attacked her religion and her skin color, driving her to tears. Someone said she should be stoned. Another person shared her home address on a Facebook group.
“My reaction was how can people be so mean and full of hate? I was left speechless. It was all about intimidation,” she said.
She deleted the Facebook app from her phone and deactivated her Twitter account. Then she focused on continuing to knock on doors in her district whenever she wasn’t at her job as a caseworker for a nonprofit agency.
Somalis began moving to Lewiston two decades ago in search of affordable housing after many settled in Portland, 36 miles (58 kilometers) away. The city of 36,000, second in population in Maine only to Portland, is now home to more than 5,000 Africans.
Khalid was born in Somalia and remembers living in a refugee camp before coming to the United States.
As a city councilor, she wants to ensure that there’s affordable housing that’s free from lead contamination, which is a problem in the city’s older housing stock. She wants to boost aging infrastructure, bring in investment, and support local businesses. She also wants to boost schools.
“When I came here, I didn’t know how to write my name or speak any word of English. I am who I am because of public education. Our children deserve the highest-quality education,” she said.
Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier said she was impressed by the poise showed by the young politician to ensure people in her community are represented. Khalid will be the youngest person on the council in January.
“If those (messages) had been directed at me, I would’ve been hiding under my bed,” Cloutier said. “I don’t know that I would’ve had the courage to fight another day. That speaks to her resiliency and her dedication.”